Doing the unthinkable with a 51-year-old whisky
Bar 51, a round-the-world pop-up, will soon offer Joburg and Cape Town a taste of Craigellachie 51
The genesis of a great idea is often mysterious. An apple falls on Isaac Newton’s head, he discovers gravity; the spark of stone on stone leads to the first tools; and one man’s sticky bit of paper is another man’s Post-it.
I mention this because I’m trying to imagine what went through the minds of the master whisky makers at Craigellachie as they deliberated on what to do with their cask of 51-year-old single malt.
One of them might have said it didn’t matter as long as they didn’t copy their famous neighbour. The discussion would have taken on a darker hue at the mention of The Macallan, just across the River Spey.
At this point, a quick dram of the 13-year-old Craigellachie does the rounds. It settles the nerves that always accompany a momentous decision and there is a moment of silence as the group savour the spirit’s distinctive brooding nature, its signature pineapple flavours with just a hint of cordite.
The smoke lingers and swirls about the bad boys of Speyside, only to be suddenly cut by the group’s only pragmatist, who points out that The Macallan has just released 200 bottles of a 50-year-old at £25,000 a bottle.
Big money is clearly at stake. Again, there is a moment of silence, and then the beginnings of a counter argument appear in the form of a 17-year-old Craigellachie dram.
They sit and mull its silky fruit flavours, and marvel at how the hard muscularity of the 13-year-old has tamed into a smoky liquorice, sweet and strange.
I like to think one of the group then takes a generous dram off into the Scottish gloaming. He wanders onto the rocky cliff from which the distillery gets its name, and looks out across the Spey at the distant lights of The Macallan.
He thinks about how this promontory leads back into the hills and the history of Craigellachie, about how it was once described as an “old-fashioned spirit” way back in 1891.
He thinks about the distillery’s famous founder, who once owned Islay’s smoky Lagavulin and then later the famous White Horse. He chuckles to himself when he remembers how, during the Prohibition, the whisky was so medicinal it was classified as a medicine and could be obtained on a doctor’s prescription.
And then he walks slowly back to the old masters and lays his idea on them. He tells them that Craigellachie should do something totally unheard of, something that truly captures the essence of the distillery.
He suggests they put their 51-year-old single malt into 51 bottles and make it the “world’s most uncollectable, collectable whisky”. And that they do this by giving it away for free.
And so the idea of Bar 51 is born, a travelling pop-up that will tour the world to bring 1,000 drams to 1,000 whisky lovers.
To celebrate this epiphany, a single dram of 51-year-old Craigellachie is raised in celebration to the still wild Scottish night. It is beautifully strange, the pineapple now complicated into something more nuanced … a ripeness that seems inhabited by the ghostly presence of a spirit only just of this world.
• Craigellachie’s round-the-world pop-up bar, Bar 51, lands in Johannesburg on November 20 and 21 and in Cape Town on November 27 and 27. Both offer you a chance to taste this 51-year-old whisky along with the 13 and 17 year old younger spirits. For more details go to: craigellachie.com/za/en/